Our team, the Kaolin Monks.
As a Dota player trying to reach the pinnacle of our game, I’ve spent countless hours building, managing, and captaining amateur and pro-amateur teams. From my years of experience doing this, I came away with a few notable interactions have left a sour taste in my mouth and warranted this cautionary tale to others who may stumble into the same places I did.
When I started playing competitively, I found that the Dota scene lacked leaders, and it was left to me to recruit players, sign up for leagues, organize scrims, and set practice schedules. To be a captain, and to manage a team at my level of Dota can be a struggle, albeit a rewarding one that’s granted me countless life skills I may not have gotten otherwise.
A number of months ago, a teammate of mine was approached by a person claiming to represent an up and coming esports organization that was looking to sign a semi-pro team to their brand. They asked my teammate some questions about what we had achieved, what our plans and goals were, and what our practice schedules were like. They enticed us with offers to the team such as t-shirts, computer hardware, stream followers, and more, and left the floor open for us to reply and talk more about the particulars. To the average, starry-eyed Dota player, this may have seemed like the beginning of an upward surge to glory. My teammate shared this exchange with the team, and while he was skeptical, said “I think it’s good to have someone like a manager,” and that it couldn’t hurt to entertain the offer.
I, on the other hand, recognized this conversation almost word for word and was instantly dismissive. Having captained as many teams as I had, I’ve interacted with numerous people claiming to have their own “up and coming” esports brands who have pitched a near identical offer.
So I began researching. I started with the basics, researching the teams website and social media. It didn’t take long to find that most of their followers were blank profiles, obviously purchased, and that their sponsorships were fake, seeing as the brands listed didn’t have any references to this organization on their sites or social media.
Loaded with the ammunition from my previous experiences dealing with this type of person, I decided to call the guy who had approached my teammate. It didn’t take long for that conversation to devolve from his pleasant elevator pitch to him angrily throwing insults and telling me off for accusing him of being “fake” once I asked him about his Twitter followers and non-functioning website.
““What are you worth?””
These organizations are at best, naive and inexperienced, and at worst, outright predatory. Even if the organizer has intentions of being “The next TSM” as this guy put it, they frequently dodge payments, or are simply incapable of making them, and hide clauses in contracts designed to siphon off the profits and opportunities awarded to players on their way up in the esports world. They promise large packages of stuff, that when thought about critically have zero value. This particular person who reached out to me promised the following: Branded t-shirts - No value to me, I’d just be advertising his logo Entry fees to tournaments - When was the last time you saw a pay-to-play tournament? Travel to tournaments - Organizers pay for travel and accomodations 99% of the time in the Dota world. Stream viewers - Had faked followers, and therefore, no audience to send. Computer hardware from sponsors - Sponsors were faked, he didn’t have any official partnerships to offer this. Negotiable salary after winning a major tournament - No concrete definition of what the salary would be, what we’d have to win, or time frames for doing so.
Why I wanted to write this, and why I titled it “The Sponsorship Symbiosis” is to pose the simple question to any players out there who might be facing scenarios like the one above: “What are you worth?”
The goal of an esports organization is to promote their brand with players who will draw viewers and sell sponsorships and merchandise. As a player, you offer them that viewership draw in exchange for resources to further your training and competition. At the highest level, players receive from their organizations salaries, training facilities, medical coverage, coaching, and more. In exchange, they do brand endorsements, ad-spots, photo shoots, and streams with the organization’s brands strewn across them. The exchange is symbiotic, beneficial to all parties involved. The players receive steady salaries and are able to focus most of their energy on competing, the team makes a profit by selling merchandise and sponsorships due to the player’s performance, and the sponsors receive valuable brand recognition because viewers have eyes on these top-performing players.
“They can either invest heavily in that team, giving them bootcamps, coaching, etc. and if the team doesn’t succeed, all is lost. ”
Often times these predatory “teams” take a shotgun approach to notoriety. They offer transient deals with very little tangible value, and in exchange, ask you, the player, to saturate the market with their brand. They do this with as many teams, streamers, and personalities as possible, and do so with the hopes that one of them breaks through a qualifier, or gets a tournament invite, or has a hit content piece that gains them droves of subscribers. Often times though, the breakthroughs that these creators or competitors experience are not a result of the support they receive from the organization, and rather, just a reflection of their own dedication and perseverance.
When it comes down to it, as an amateur or “up and coming” team, you’re not worth much to any legitimate organization. My own team, despite appearing at a LAN and competing around the 6 to 6.5k level in scrims, still doesn’t have a fanbase or scene presence that a legitimate team would consider worth signing us to gain. For the equation to work from an organization’s point of view, they’d have to offer us little, or nothing and gamble on us having a breakthrough. For us, we’d be sacrificing the value of that breakthrough, for the offered goods such as t-shirts and hardware. In most cases, that’s a losing proposal on one side or both, and that’s even ignoring cases where the organization lies and doesn’t follow through on contract obligations, which is unfortunately common in the esports world.
This is fairly simple to demonstrate using basic game theory. To an organization betting on the success of an unknown entity--the team--they have a small table of options. They can either invest heavily in that team, giving them bootcamps, coaching, etc. and if the team doesn’t succeed, all is lost. If the team does succeed, they have a lot to gain, but it’s at a slower rate due to paying back the up-front investment.
However, if an org provides little or no value, but can get the team to sign a contract anyways, the worst case scenario is that they invest nothing, and gain nothing in return. However, if the team succeeds, they’ve gained a lot of attention and sponsorship opportunities with nothing up-front.
This of course is only relevant for “unknown” entities such as teams like mine. When a team can consistently make it to events which are broadcasted to thousands, they have demonstrated value which advertisers and companies will pounce on. Therefore organizations don’t have to make predatory or low-value deals, and instead can simply pay the teams what they are worth, and everyone is happy.
So to all of the Dota players out there still chasing the dream, when you’re approached about your team, take a moment to look at the offer with a critical lens. Find out where the money is coming from, who is offering it, and their capacity to follow through. Evaluate what you have to offer, and if your upward potential is worth signing away for what you’re being offered. Read your contracts, know who you’re in business with, and don’t let small-time deals distract you from the core of competitive dota - getting good.
Footnote - For references of the type of “offers” and “sponsorships” I talk about in this article, feel free to visit /r/compdota2 and simply search that subreddit for the term “Sponsor”. I don’t want to point any fingers at particular posts because I haven’t researched each organization posting there, but a large number of these posts follow the trends and language that have become red flags for me over the years.